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7 Things NEVER to Say to People With Disabilities

We’ve all heard them. Culturally insensitive terms such as “handicapped,” “retarded” and “slow” used to refer to people with disabilities, or “compliments” such as “but you look so good,” directed at people whose disabilities aren’t obvious. While those using the terms may not mean to be insensitive, that doesn’t make the words less hurtful.

“These terms are unacceptable because they are linked to a history that the general public isn’t aware of,” says Nancy Starnes, vice president and chief of staff for the National Organization on Disability (NOD). “And just like there are terms that you don’t use for African Americans anymore, the same goes for people with disabilities.” There are approximately 11.8 million people with reported disabilities in the work force, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“As the demographics in this country shift, there are going to be more and more people with disabilities in the work force. And as long as accommodations are available, there’s no reason they should not expect to continue to work,” says Stern.

7 Things NEVER to Say to People With Disabilities

Read these seven things you should not say to people with disabilities, then read our list of Things ‘to’ Say to People With Disabilities to further improve awareness for diversity and inclusion at your company.

1. “What’s wrong/what happened?” or “Were you born that way?”

People view their disabilities differently. While some people may feel comfortable discussing their conditions, these are still very personal questions. They most definitely should not be the first questions you ask when meeting someone with a disability. And what’s “wrong” should never be asked.

“In the wider community, I have had perfect strangers come up to me and instead of greeting me or saying hello, they say, ‘What’s wrong? What happened?’,” says Tim Vaughn, a  marketing director with Eastman Kodak Co. “When this happens, I try to set the example by suggesting we greet each other as people first.”

2. “Oh, if you just have faith, you can be healed.”

Suggesting that a person can be “fixed” by a religious or medical breakthrough is not only insensitive, it also discounts the diagnosis of a qualified doctor. This, for some newly diagnosed people, may make dealing with medical issues more difficult.

“Some people are problem-solvers by nature and they want to help fix what they perceive is your problem. While I appreciate where their good nature comes from, it’s not the best thing to do,” Vaughn says.

3. Speaking slowly or loudly to someone who is in a wheelchair.

A common misconception is that people with physical disabilities, such as a motor or sensory impairment, also have other disabilities, particularly mental disabilities.

“When people see someone in a wheelchair, they automatically begin making assumptions,” says Vaughn. “From my personal perspective, if individuals see someone in a wheelchair, they immediately assume that there are multiple disabilities that the person is dealing with–mental, visual, auditory–and not just the fact that there is a mobility issue.”

4. “I don’t even think of you as a person with a disability.”

People with disabilities and advocates debate whether this is a “compliment” or an insult; however, many warn that it can come across as degrading a person. “What they’re trying to say, in their own way, is that I think of you as capable and able or even powerful,” says Deb Dagit, chief diversity officer for Merck & Co. (No. 16 on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list). “But it comes across just exactly like saying ‘I don’t think of you as a woman,’ or ‘as Black,’ or ‘as Asian,'” adds Dagit, who has brittle-bone disease.

5. “How do you go to the bathroom?”

Questioning how someone uses the restroom is a rude question–period. It can be especially offensive to a person with a disability because it assumes that person has trouble managing basic tasks. And while you may be curious about how a person with disabilities manages things, unless your coworker volunteers the information, it’s really none of your business.

6. “But you look so good.”

There is no doubt that in today’s corporate America that keeping a good game face is important to one’s success. While this can be difficult for some people with disabilities, no one wants to have his or her work discounted.

“Comparing the appearance or ability of a person with a disability to a person without a disability has the same underlying messages as saying to a women, ‘Your report was well done, for a girl,'” Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), tells DiversityInc.

7. “Oh, you’re here, you must feel better.”

It’s wrong to assume that because someone is at work, he or she is feeling better, or not affected by his or her disability that day. For people with chronic or “invisible” illnesses, becoming accustomed to living with the disability is a necessary part of an individual’s day-to-day life.



  • I dislike the idea that one person or one group speaks for all with disabilities. I have no problem with the word “handicap”, and I never hear anyone scream about handicap placards for cars.

    I am more aggravated by the idea that all handicaps are visible, and that a wheelchair is used as the icon. Many of us have disabilities that truly limit us — heart disease, lung disease, etc., yet get short shrift in the whole discussion.

  • Kalyana krishnan

    2. “Oh, if you just have faith, you can be healed.”

    This point is a cultural thing for example in India, this statement would be viewed as empathiser because every Indian irrespective of religion connects all events to hand of God. Hence no hurt or offence wld be inferred. Also it is a very common statement amongst Indians.

  • I had the wonderful, wonderful opportunity (early in my HR career) to work in a public bistate agency that was well-known for its record of hiring, promoting and retaining people with both physical and other “disabilities”. In fact, I put the word “disabilities” in quotations specifically because it was during my tenure there as an HR professional that I learned that “disability” is SO, SO often relative, and not necessarily physical. Looking back now on those years, I often think more about the “disabilities” that plagued many of my able-bodied and otherwise-abled colleagues! (Laugh)

    But the organization that I worked for was indeed at the forefront in this arena, and to this day I give it and my former colleagues the highest praise where disabilities acculturation is concerned. It simply, simply “was” a “thing” in our workplace. But it was never, EVER, a “big deal”. People taught, and people learned from one another. And so on and so forth, and it basically worked out quite, quite well.

    Kudos to the authors of this insightful piece!

  • From an employer HR perspective I have to agree with the comments above. While some on here have posted you personally don’t mind the term handicap or certain phrases that can be stated, in the workplace making these comments is setting up a complaint, maybe even an external complaint to the EEOC or the state’s human rights department.
    While one comment may not be be severe or pervasive enough to get it into court, the comment can be seen as insenstive, and a lot of time has been put out by HR and perhaps yourself to investigate, review policies, and end you up in a harassment training. It’s good to be proactive sometimes and remember work is not the same as seeing someone in the grocery aisle.

    • Danielle Gauthier

      You might find this odd, but I prefer the word handicapped rather than disabled. As I often say, I may be handicapped, but I am NOT disabled. To me, my crutches are a second pair of legs which allow me to retain my independence. The biggest problem I face daily is dealing with people’s personal prejudices. They are rampant in Quebec. I can’t get over how taboo handicaps are in my province. I see no light at the end of the tunnel.

  • I would love to see more education in the workplace about the invisible disabilities. Because I am articulate and successful, most people don’t know that I have ADHD, or how much harder I have to work to stay organized, get things done on time, or concentrate in a noisy environment. Since I don’t have a special parking place and seem bright, I sometimes feel as if my struggles don’t count. Yes ADHD is like driving a vehicle with a formula one engine and the steering linkages of a school bus. We need to make a long more effort to stay pointed in the right direction and wind up where we want to go. Of course we do have some interesting side trips!


      I am the mother of twins with ADHD and Mild LD that seems like
      it is getting worst. I wondered is there a Web Page started by
      anyone so everyone can help each other. For example when
      you find companies who are willing to work with different “disa
      bilities ” let us know. It would really good to talk with others to
      get help through some of the road trips that you find yourself
      on as well as find the companies who are willing to work with
      a diverse work force.

  • Linda Bumpass

    Thanks for the article! I second what Lisa said and have had many interesting side trips too!:) Many years ago, I used similar wording to #4 with a colleague who had survived polio only I worded a bit differently. I had been with some female visitors who were discussing what an inspiration the man was and really raving about him. I was lost upon hearing them for about a full minute because they did not mention his pronounced limp or they polie. I was baffled at their tone of voice. His disability had become completely invisible to me such that I couldn’t immediately connect why they were speaking that way about him. I talked with him about it later. In his case, my perception of him was exactly the way he wanted to be seen — as only himself. This article raised my future awareness in that others might not feel the same though.

  • rayine rainbow

    I am also a person with ADHD/ and back problems, all of them are invisible..I am 62 years old so I was mostly raised before they had a name for what I had besides lazy, not working up to your potential, wandering, daydreaming etc..I was luckly though I had a mother who never made a big deal of it and knew for so reason I couldn’t do the same as my brothers..So, here I am years later in a job in the workforce, only able to get a part-time one..After a domestic volience and a divorce, from lack of self-esteem…That I loved..and am told by a co-worker oh! we don’t think of you as disabled all of the moment checking me and listening everything I say to people.We worked with the public…My supervisior didn’t..Now, I am someplace else and I have a supervisior that is a dream, checks things I do., quietly tells me if I’m doing something wrong..is always around for questions…and am treated very good..just as all of the other employees..Disabled or Not…

  • Cissa Bipolar

    Hi, there, I’m really glad someone started talking about invisible disabilities. It feels really lonely no to be understood by those around you when you’re bipolar. It’s something you just can’t predict, and it’s really hard to control. I feel I had much I could contribute with in the companies I worked, but, unfortunately, my sharp collocations simply fly off my lips and hurt people. It’s terrible to live working on your words constantly, before they leave your mouth. It’s tiresome and joyless. In order not to be taken wrongly and have to explain my acts and thoughts constantly, I decided to work on my own. Bipolarity is an illness not everyone understands, and it really annoys me when I hear jokes including words that reach some of these invisible disabilities. So, othe things people should stop saying are: She’s so bipolar…/ This computer is esquizophrenic today…/ Hey, “mongol”…

    Tks for the opportunity to unburden,

  • Sick Tree

    I’d much rather someone ask me “whats wrong/what happened? ” than stare at me forever, wondering.

  • Susan Hirshorn

    Bravo. As a left leg amputee (who uses crutches) for over 30 years I’ve heard all of the above and more. I think you should try to get Google or Yahoo news to run this piece since the ignorance level is still pretty high. (Yahoo News just ran a piece on what not to say to new mothers so they might be open to it). Keep up the good work!

  • Cassie Jayne Phillips

    I think some people can be very tactless and insensitive when approaching people with disabilities. Someone I know has this rather ignorant opinion of people with mental health problems she call them nutters and other not very caring names. She says most them it is all their own fault and they should pull themselves out of it. I have suffered depression myself and I can relate to what other people who have similar problems. I have now distanced myself from her I don’t like bigots and she should be more caring in this area. Anyone can suffer depression lets hope she never gets it. It is a terrible illness I had it for 4 years it was a uphill struggle to get back to being well again.

  • Carole Heath

    I agree with Cassie’s comment and many of the other comments on this site. Some people I stress that some people because not all people have this attitude towards people with health problems. I think that people who have a insensitive approach are either bigots or ignorant. I had a friend who was very nasty at a swimming pool which I go to at a sports centre near me. She became very annoyed because some disabled people where swimming with an instructor near where we were swimming she told the instructor that he should take the people to the other end of the pool as they were getting in our way. I told her she should have more empathy and respect others she didn’t really like me saying anything but I felt she needed to be told. Since then she has been more sensitive in that particular area.

  • Donnie Meredith

    I would like to start off by saying thank you both to the author, and for the authors of the comments for physically and metaphorically standing up for those of us on “the other side.” I have a friend I met after my accident who is starting an amusement park for people that do things differently than the so called “able bodied” people called “The Other Side Fun Park” in Bowling Green Kentucky. I had a car wreck at age 19 and due to an infection I had to have a hemipelvectomy, lost my left leg from the hip socket down. I have, like many others heard the worst and the unintentionally hurtful with good intentions. I’ve figured out some things that bother me personally. I generally try to laugh them off, but I’m like the clown hiding the tears with his make up. I also suffer from severe P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) so I understand the invisible issue as well. One thing that scares me is “don’t worry we will get you in somehow.” My wheelchair has been dropped more than once and since I am 6’5″ tall and 250 pounds, it can be painful. One that was said at church one time was “bless his heart, he is just a crippled” that one hurt bad. But probably the number one thing that bothers me the most is my wheelchair being used as a leaning post or a footstool. My family is the worst about that. Part of my P.T.S.D. involves, I can’t handle being touched and rubbed on by people and so when people use part of me (my chair, or my body) to lean on it makes me feel like I am just a piece of furniture. No matter how many times I talk about it, they just don’t understand. They love me and are very supportive it’s just another one of those things that as my wonderful girlfriend says makes me unique.

  • Didn’t move in my mother’s womb; feet put in braces an hour after birth; epileptic seizures, another birth defect corrected at three. Shy, self conscious, every bully in the universe smells your fear. I am 57, on the austism spectrum, and after getting cancer, a judge deemed me disabled.
    I work every day to count my blessings, but I believe this world needs a wake up call when it comes to bullying and mistreating the disabled. Be kind, and show love to those that are different.

  • As a teenage girl with cerebral palsy I will say that many other disabled (I’m really sorry if that’s not pc, I didn’t even realize handicapped wasn’t) really do need to grow a thicker skin. I don’t often notice the things on this list anymore, years of living with it have conditioned me to it. If we want people to treat us like normal people, we need to stop taking offense at the small things in life; and we need to show able-bodied people that we are people. I’m not saying you should answer awkward or invasive questions like #5, but you really should feel flattered that people want to learn about you. Just by virtue of being unique, people are going to ask about you. at least they are asking rather than sitting there staring like an idiot

    • Luke Visconti

      I’m recently disabled. I agree with you for the most part. Only two things bother me: cruelty and ill intent. Many of the things listed could be said innocently, but unless you’re a child, you have to factor some amount of cruelty to someone asking personal questions or making assumptions publicly. Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

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